As the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Rolex Series are set to join forces in 2014 – quite in what fashion remains to be seen – arguably one of two major talking points regarding the merger is how the schedule will look. A preliminary guess is 12 races, a number said by ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton during the Sept. 5 press conference.
Three tracks all but certain to have a place on that schedule are three of this country's legendary road racing circuits, Lexington, Ohio's Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Elkhart Lake, Wis.'s Road America and Monterey, Calif.'s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
They're three of four tracks which feature both ALMS and Grand-Am races on the calendar – Lime Rock Park (LEFT) is the fourth – but the other three have enough in terms of pedigree, history and paddock space to where they could serve as hotbeds for the singular series.
Beyond providing venues that feature great racing, the tracks exist first to sell tickets and cater to the interests of the ticket-buying fans.
“Without the fan support, it doesn't matter what you put together because if you can't sell tickets to the show, there's no point in having a show,” says Gill Campbell, CEO and general manager of Mazda Raceway. “I think it's very important that whatever the product ends up being is one the fans will want to see.”
“We have to be concerned about the fans, and (the two series) have a lot in common, which is great,” adds Craig Rust, president of Mid-Ohio, and formerly of Watkins Glen International. “What's the right product for the fans in 2014? You need to take the pieces that both of the series have done right.”
Of the three, only Mid-Ohio in recent years has provided a joint weekend of IndyCar and sports cars running together (on the ALMS weekend in August). Offering the best of both worlds provides the ultimate bang for the buck for road racing fans, even if it can make coverage of both during a weekend a tad bit challenging!
The financial barriers between the tracks and promoters and the current IndyCar sanctioning fee temper the desire for IndyCar to return to the other two circuits, Mazda Raceway and Road America. Road America last hosted an open-wheel weekend for Champ Car in 2007 (its last U.S. round of its last full season) while Champ Car's last Monterey race occurred in 2004.
Road America would seem a slam dunk based on the clamoring between drivers and fans alike to return. But, as track president George Bruggenthies says, there has to be something IndyCar can bring to the table beyond the desire to scarf a double brat at the St. John's stand in the infield.
“We're very open to it, but it's out of my hands,” he explained. “My understanding is that Michael Andretti has got an exclusive Wisconsin deal here (with Milwaukee). Until he's happy, there's only gonna be one IndyCar race in Wisconsin. There's nothing I can do about that.
“I've talked to Mr. [Randy] Bernard several times in face-to-face meetings. You've got team owners running the series. I don't know what their future is. Everyone's gotta pay the bills. But he [Andretti] wasn't paying hardly anything for his sanctioning fee this year. I don't know how that goes.”
While Bruggenthies denied specifics of what a sports car sanctioning fee is by comparison, he did note IndyCar's number.
“For sports cars, it is confidential, but it is much lower,” he said. “But with the IndyCar sanctioning fee, I don't have a contract with them so I can tell you what they're asking. They're asking $2 or $2.2 (million) – and I'm thinking, ‘You guys are crazy! You don't have a TV package worth much, and you don't bring anything along that brings revenue – hospitality or a partner.' It does not make sense.”
Campbell, too, said Mazda Raceway is open to the possibility of a return. But the bigger issue is that Sonoma, two hours further north, is still on the calendar and the viability of two similar road course races in the same market isn't realistic at the moment.
“We're ready to embrace them when they're ready to embrace us,” she said. “For us, we'd love to have an open-wheel series back here. But at the moment, it's not strong enough, we believe, to support two appearances in Northern California. It has to rebuild itself to where the populace in this area can truly support it. And, I'm open any time IndyCar would like to be here. We've talked for several years. They have a little ways to go.”
The one double-header Road America does have, Bruggenthies says, has a clear delineation in the fan base. NASCAR's Nationwide Series has raced at Road America since 2010, with Grand-Am added as an early morning preliminary race last year.
“To be honest with you, most of the fans the Grand-Am weekend are NASCAR fans,” Bruggenthies says. “We like the Grand-Am racing, Continental Tire and Rolex Series. But we get some comments from the sports car fans and it's like, ‘Ah, you know, I'm not a NASCAR fan.' Our Nationwide racing has been very exciting and has converted a few fans to it.
“I have a feeling that Grand-Am is not going to continue during that weekend for a number of reasons, but that is not confirmed yet,” he added.
Mid-Ohio, Rust says, might need to evaluate a weekend where IndyCar and the sports car series are split depending on the level of interest in the sports car championship. Mid-Ohio's Grand-Am race was held in June this year, with IndyCar and ALMS together in August for the sixth consecutive year.
Not only was IndyCar and ALMS on the same ticket, but so too was the Pirelli World Challenge.
“From a Mid-Ohio standpoint, I want us to take a hard look at what a standalone sports car event might look like,” Rust says. “Certainly IndyCar is one of our biggest events. It's established. But I think this new series gives you the potential for more big events. We have to be open to looking at it as a standalone.”
All three are bullish on the potential of the combined series, but concerned ultimately that the technical and class structure created will truly combine the best aspects of the two to satisfy the paying customers.
“We hope all the changes are positive,” says Bruggenthies. “There's a lot of teams with cars in both series. There's a lot of drivers that run both series. That should create some economies and hopefully those economies lead to more cars, and better cars. They're a little bit dissimilar, the DP and the LMP, so we'll see if it leads to some specification. We like the GT in ALMS right now. We'd like to see a unified and better promotion of sports car racing, and create more fans, more interest, sell more tickets.”
“I think the time is right,” adds Rust. “We were, like most people, very excited when we heard the news. I think that the new series has a tremendous opportunity to really take sports car racing to new heights, a new level in North America.”
“The key thing from a series standpoint is the involvement of manufacturers. How can that be streamlined, what are they looking for?” asks Campbell. “It's not just racing on Sunday but selling on Monday – and will it sell several years down the road from research and development? We're looking forward to how the class structure will look like and how it's supported.”